That person in front of you? Unreliable narrator alert…
Ever since I first discovered them, I have loved unreliable narrators in literature. Those folks who seem to be earnestly recounting a story, but whose narratives seem to be a little off, not quite adding up, so that some disquiet is created in the reader. And then gently it is revealed: this narrator is not to be trusted…
There are generally two types of unreliable narrators: those who are manipulating the reader into believing a false story; and those who believe what they tell you, but are clearly delusional in some important way.
Authors who can pull this trick off—of having the teller recount the story, while gently misleading the reader—are like conjurors. They make you look at one hand while the other is up to mischief. I love that kind of story with a passion.
But here’s the big reveal in my little narration today: when I talk about unreliable narrators, I’m not just referring to a genre of literature. In real life, pretty much every single person you meet is an unreliable narrator.
We all think we are telling truths; but what we actually tell is our version of the truth; our perception of what happened; or what we believe to be accurate. Those are very different things. Human beings are not objective observers or neutral participants in any situation. They have their preconceptions, biases and preferences, all the way. So anything they tell you will be coloured to support their worldview.
Wisdom arrives when we become aware of this in our lives: that one version of events is never enough. Even your most trusted, your most reliable, your most sober witness is not capable of telling you an objective truth. Any recounting of events is always coloured by the narrator’s own emotions and cognitive weaknesses. Even the person who is one hundred per cent convinced of what happened cannot be believed without question.
The legal world knows this very well; that is why evidence must be heard from many quarters, and corroborated. Weightings must be attached to the reliability of witnesses. Opposing scenarios must be considered. A judgement can only be arrived at after careful consideration of all possibilities. Even then, the result may be suspect.
It is very important for leaders to know this fact of life. We can neither be sure of our messengers, nor of our own conclusions. There must always be space for doubt.
A serious incident occurs. An aggrieved party comes to tell you what happened. They are earnest and sincere and clearly convinced what they say is what actually occurred. Listen to them with your full attention and empathy. But hold your emotions in check, and then—pause.
One side of the story is never enough, no matter how trusted or kindred the source. It is not that people are outright liars (though some are); it is more that no one person can tell you the entire truth. We must look for the other pieces in the puzzle, other perspectives on the events that occurred. We will probably find a very different tale unfolding when told from the other side of the incident. After listening to it all, we must come to the best conclusion we can assemble—knowing that that too, is not ironclad, because our own biases also come into play.
Understanding that everyone you meet is an unreliable narrator will make you a better leader, a better strategist, a better judge, a better advisor, a better friend, a better parent. If you don’t jump headlong into the story you’re being told, you have a chance of coming to a deeper understanding of reality. If you build a richer picture, you will be fairer to all concerned, and perhaps even do something more meaningful for your prime witnesses, be they your subordinates or your children.
I do not wish to turn you into a lifelong cynic, mistrustful of all who come before you. That is not wisdom. The point is to understand human limitations a little better, so that we can become better humans ourselves. We do not really deal in facts; we deal in stories. We create tales that help us make sense of our complex reality; we simplify and assume. We like to believe we are in the right—but so do those we think are wrong. Once we know this, we can make better judgements, and be of more use to the world.
Of course, the author of this column is also an unreliable narrator. So remember to take everything you’ve just read with a pinch of salt, and to seek other perspectives on human objectivity.
(Sunday Nation, 28 November)
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